The war on zoning is a secret??!

There are a couple of things that need to go away from writing right now. 1) Analogies between the modern world and ancient Rome (or ancient Greece) that make no sense and 2) using “The War on X” to title anything. The first observation I credit to brilliant former student Peter McFerrin, who noted we should just ban people from making these analogies because most of them are entirely specious and usually self-serving. The second is self-serving, too; overly emotional metaphor that nicely exemplifies the logical fallacy, if-by-whisky. Oh, those liberals! They are AT WAR with the Constitution. There is a CULTURE WAR. Blah blah blah. Retch, Puke, Vomit.

No, war actually involves militaries. Somebody trying to change policies in a way you don’t like is not a war.

Before anybody says it, I don’t think there is a GOP war on women. But that doesn’t mean we’re not in a backlash, a serious one, or that the people leading it aren’t a-holes. It just means that the war metaphor has been over-used, and I’m tired of it.

SO this selection from the Atlantic Cities crossed my desk this morning: The Secret Conservative War On Zoning.. I don’t mean to be rude, but are you kidding me? Is the war a secret? Or are the conservatives secret? Every so often I wish that people in planning would engage in some serious reflexivity about their own biases, one of them being that the field attracts people who believe in progressive social change. There is nothing wrong with that: in fact, that sentiment strikes me as noble and compassionate in my students. But that doesn’t mean that it’s right all the time.

So the shopworn “war on” title combined with an assumed conservative bogeyman. Why conservatives would resent being cast in this role in public discourse is anybody’s guess.

The rest of the article doesn’t help me get over my original grump.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate lobbying group known for pushing the “Stand Your Ground” gun legislation that factored into the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, may be getting into a new line of business: planning and zoning.

Note the careful dodge: “may be getting into.” I love leads like that. And the emotional lead: Trayvon Martin.

The rest goes on to explain that ALEC has put “poison pill” language into model legislation that would to make local zoning much more difficult or impossible. Shocking! Lobbyists rolling legislation? Utterly shocking! How DARE THEY? Naive planners must be taken aback at the dirty pool out-maneuvering!

Of course, planners and environmental organizations have already set up their OWN pre-fab legislative models and language that contains their own regulatory agenda. But it’s right when WE do it, and wrong the Bad Guys do it. Three words: form-based codes. Environmental lobbies have promulgated these and their variants as God’s Own Truth in model legislation and policy. The idea that another group might be forming up in opposition to the values assumed in these regulations should hardly surprise us: it’s how American politics works. Planners and planning ideas, even zoning, do not get a free pass in the political realm, no matter how convinced we are of our own individual rightness and our opponents’ wrongness, ignorance, and bad faith.

Only conservatives hate regulation, after all, right? That’s why Democrat Jerry Brown is in the middle of deconstructing CEQA–not because it’s an over-reaching law, which it is, but because it might stop him from spending $3billion in federal funds on his pet luxury train project.

Going back to War on Zoning, Flint tells us that zoning fights are not new, and the American Planning Association has set up training to help planners…Read More »

Two demographers, Dowell Myers and Joel Kotkin, on the future of California: it ain’t looking good

So some of my students have sent me this WSJ piece citing Joel Kotkin about the future of California. According to him, California’s future looks terrible, due to its welfare and regulatory state. The piece is written by Allysia Finley, and here’s the bit of information that should scare us a bit:

Nearly four million more people have left the Golden State in the last two decades than have come from other states. This is a sharp reversal from the 1980s, when 100,000 more Americans were settling in California each year than were leaving. According to Mr. Kotkin, most of those leaving are between the ages of 5 and 14 or 34 to 45. In other words, young families.

The pithy quote:

“The new regime”—his name for progressive apparatchiks who run California’s government—”wants to destroy the essential reason why people move to California in order to protect their own lifestyles.

Kotkin’s point, a bit overstated perhaps, is that Californians are making it so miserable to
to try to start up a new business or buy a house that they are cutting their own legs out from under themselves–and they are doing it not because they really wish to protect the environment, but because they want to maintain the exclusivity of their neighborhoods and schools.

Leaving aside Kotkin, who comes off as abrasive in this piece, it’s hard to justify the regulatory and approvals process in California when you read stories like this one about Julie Pries working for two years in a recession to start up an ice cream shop in San Francisco.

Ms. Pries said it took two years to open the restaurant, due largely to the city’s morass of permits, procedures and approvals required to start a small business. While waiting for permission to operate, she still had to pay rent and other costs, going deeper into debt each passing month without knowing for sure if she would ever be allowed to open.

The mayor’s response: a $1.5 million fund to help small businesses, which is chump change in a place where commercial rents are very high. How about just cutting approvals time in half, for starters, instead?

And that’s Kotkin’s point, once you cut through the WSJ’s “let’s all hate on California” nonsense: California is not doing itself any favors with this stuff, given how the state’s economy is not bouncing back. And Kotkin’s point about the state being divided into a playground for the rich and a haven for the poor simply echoes a point made by Californian’s superstar historian Kevin Starr several years ago. Like it or not, those of us with financial security in the state seem to feel little urgency to change the regulatory and approvals process to help out those who need a job at an ice cream shop.

As to his bashing on welfare: that doesn’t make any sense to me. With the recent budget cuts, the state has fallen from being first in services for the poor waaaaaaaay down to banana republic/deep south social safety net levels. So you can’t blame the state holding onto social support for impoverished people. It’s not doing so. So you’ve had your austerity/neoliberal fix there, WSJ/Rupert Murdoch. Where is all our economic growth that supposedly falls out of the sky with unicorns and rainbows once you grind the faces of the poor into the dirt and make them all work?

Dowell Myers, one of my brilliant colleagues, just released a major report showing that the state’s growth numbers are not good. Here’s the shorter news story.

The analysis also estimated that growth among California’s seniors, those 65 and older, will quadruple within the next 20 years, driven by the aging of the large baby boomer generation.

At the same time, growth among the main working-age population ages 25 to 64 is expected to slow, and virtually all the projected growth, or 98 percent, is comprised of native-born children of immigrants, or second-generation immigrants.

“In less than 20 years, the baby boom generation will all be senior citizens, and these projections show their replacements in the workforce will be the children of immigrants,” Pitkin said.

So basically, California turns into a great, big retirement village. Will those seniors stay or will they go? It’s hard to tell: if it’s difficult for people to start up the sort of businesses that help seniors cope with their new needs in the market, seniors just might leave for places that are more friendly to them where housing costs are lower. That means some of the concern about housing prices might alleviate.

All of this, however, is bad news for the bullet train, the other object of Kotkin’s scorn. The projected use for the train and justifying investment has hinged on population numbers that don’t fit the state’s new reality of economic stagnation. Myers is too optimistic and polite to say it, but that’s essentially what his report shows. If there aren’t any new opportunities, people can’t be pulled to the state.

All that just brings up the typical Keynesian arguments that if you spend state money on the train, the economy will grow, there will be jobs, etc etc and so what if we over-estimated the future population of the potential customer base? If you are not a Keynesian, spending billions on the train makes little sense in the light of these projections.

Obama’s new CAFE Standards as a tax break

Eagle-eyed reader Don C referred me to this nice Op-Ed from the Ready for an Obama Tax Break: TxDOT might not be by Ben Wear. The key point:

Hang on first for some math.

Let’s say a Pflugerville physics schoolteacher drives 15,000 miles a year and, by coincidence, has a car that averages right at that 28 mpg existing standard. She would need 536 gallons to do that.

She pays both a state gasoline tax of 20 cents a gallon (which hasn’t increased since 1991) and a federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon (locked in since 1993). So her annual tax hit (paid invisibly at the pump) is $107 to the state and almost $99 to the feds. So, about $206 a year.

With a 56 mpg car, her total tax would be $103. Oh, and at $3.40 a gallon (and subtracting the gas taxes), she would save another $800 by buying half as much gasoline.

But here’s the problem, from a statewide perspective. TxDOT, which gets about three-quarters of that state gas tax revenue and about the same percentage of what Texans pay in federal gas taxes (because a quarter of it, unfairly in the eyes of Texas officials, is then distributed to other states), would lose a couple of billion dollars a year. Ouch.

I had to look up Pflugerville.

Finance folks in transport have seen this train coming for some time. The GAO issued a report in 2009 discussing the issue of improved fleet fuel economy on Federal coffers. Most of us have argued we should go with a mileage fee, or usage subscriptions for autos. Both of which could be handled by leases to private companies.

Polluted, dangerous and poorly regulated: Brownfield redevelopment from Hollander and Sigman

Justin Hollander at Tufts is a rising star in planning research. He’s got a new book out on Shrinking Cities, but I haven’t seen that one yet. The one I have seen is a volume called Polluted and Dangerous: America’s Worst Abandoned Properties and What Can Be Done About Them from last year. At a book a year, he should do pretty well in this business.

From the blurb:

Blighted, contaminated, and abandoned property mars nearly every major American city. Justin Hollander conducted primary research in twenty urban centers containing such “brownfields” or, in the most serious cases, “HI-TOADS” (High-Impact Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites). His goal was to study the sites and the official handling of them through the lenses of sustainability, urban planning, redevelopment, and environmental justice. In Polluted and Dangerous, he scrutinizes specific sites in five of the affected cities: New Bedford, Massachusetts; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Trenton, New Jersey; and Youngstown, Ohio

link: UPNE – Polluted and Dangerous: Justin B. Hollander

In this month’s volume of the Journal of Law and Economics, Hilary Sigman has a manuscript that tests the level of capitalization that occurs surrounding these sorts of properties based on different liability regimes:

Sigman, Hilary. “Environmental Liability and Redevelopment of Old Industrial Land .” Journal of Law and Economics 53, no. May (2010): 289-206.

The manuscript contains a convincing analysis that liability rules are incompletely capitalized in land prices; so while potentially contaminated land is lower in price, it is not sufficiently lower in price to equalize vacancy rates or hit a point where there is parity between brownfields and greenfields in prices. This, I suspect, has to do with information problems: with a brownfield site, there is the possibility that the contamination will turn out much worse than originally believed.

Sigman is at the Bloustein school, where Hollander got his PhD. So there’s some good work coming out of there on brownfields.

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Lecture on NEPA and Transportation Compliance

I have recorded and posted a videocast, found here, of a supplemental lecture for my PPD 692 class. There will probably be more lectures as the class goes on, which I will post to this pared-down site.

Today’s topic is an introduction to the National Environmental Policy Act and its application to transportation projects. It’s meant for advanced undergraduates or relatively new master’s students who are just learning the policy context for project analysis in transportation planning.

I have no idea how permissions work, but as far as I am concerned, you can use this in your classes or pass it along to anybody who wants to learn more about NEPA.